By BassFan Staff
As has been the case for much of his career, Kevin VanDam found a way today to be better than the competition when the stakes were at their highest. Not just slightly better.
When the conditions changed today for the conclusion of the St. Lawrence River Elite Series, it threw most of the finalists for a loop. The wind was humming against the northeast-bound current. The fish were tougher to pinpoint. The 20-pound bags that had become the norm all week were much harder to come by.
VanDam didn’t flinch.
At 7:30 this morning, he caught a 6-pound, 5-ounce smallmouth to set the tone for a magnificent final day that saw him tally 23-12 and pull away for a convincing, wire-to-wire victory. He totaled 90-03 over four days to capture his 24th career B.A.S.S. victory and collect his ninth full-field Elite Series win.
After going five years between victories, VanDam has racked up four B.A.S.S. wins over the past 14 months. It’s a struggle now to come up with superlatives to describe his accomplishments and put his career in perspective, arguably because his résumé has no equal. His 24 wins are nine more than Rick Clunn (15), the next closest active angler on the Bassmaster career wins list.
“It’s my 300th tournament. It’s my 24th win. What an incredible week. It’s unbelievable,” VanDam said on stage after the win. “I had a great day. This place is so incredible.”
VanDam blasted off with a 2 1/2-pound lead over his nephew, Jonathon, and expected a smallmouth shootout based on the numbers of big fish that still inhabited the areas the leaders were fishing. Instead, the sport’s biggest name turned his 300th career Bassmaster event into a blowout.
Second-year Elite Series angler Brock Mosley collected the only other 20-pound bag – a 20-02 stringer that bumped him up to a career-best runner-up finish with 82-03.
Brandon Palaniuk held onto 3rd with an 18-13 bag that gave him 82-00 overall. Brent Ehrler caught his lightest bag of the event (17-13), but it gave him a 4th-place finish with 80-14. Jonathon VanDam also finished with 80-14 after sacking 16-14, but settled for 5th because Ehrler had the bigger single-day total (day 1) between the two.
Here's how rest of the finalists finished up:
6. James Elam: 78-14
7. Jamie Hartman: 78-12
8. Casey Ashley: 77-13
9. Brandon Coulter: 77-09
10. Gerald Swindle: 76-08
11. Alton Jones: 75-13
12. Bernie Schultz: 70-09
Palaniuk will leave Waddington with the lead in the Angler of the Year standings – an 8-point cushion over Casey Ashley. Kevin VanDam is now 3rd, 17 points back of Palaniuk.
After the slick, calm conditions on Saturday allowed many anglers to pound away on the smallmouth still cruising the shallows, today was the first weather curveball of the tournament. With the wind blowing against the current and the increased wave action, making visual contact with the fish was difficult and it made bait presentations challenging, especially those that are most effective using a drift technique (tubes, dropshot).
The Elite Series moves over to Plattsburgh, N.Y., this coming week as the circuit returns to Lake Champlain for the first time since 2007.
While others struggled, VanDam excelled in the rougher conditions on Sunday.
Change Was Good for VanDam
> Day 4: 5, 23-12 (20, 90-03)
It was September 1987 when VanDam competed in his first B.A.S.S. tournament. The event launched out of Clayton, N.Y., along the St. Lawrence River and he finished 110th. He’s bounced back pretty well over the last 30 years, even winning twice at the St. Lawrence prior to this week.
That’s why this victory had a special feeling to it, he said.
“It seems like yesterday I was up here for the first time,” he said on stage. “I’ve watched how this fishery has changed. Back then, there were no zebra mussels or gobies and 15 pounds was a good bag back in the '80s and '90s. Then the Great Lakes started changing. The invasive species are bad for some, but for smallmouth they’re like steroids because they are growing. Compared to two years ago, it’s incredible.”
And he believes it could be even better next year when the Elite Series returns to Waddington in mid-August.
“The fish are here to do it,” he said. “If you had the right weather, it’s possible. This is post-spawn and they’re not as big as they could be. We’ll be here later (next year) and it’ll change things up.”
This tournament was all about change for VanDam, who mixed not only techniques, but colors as well just to give the St. Lawrence smallmouth different looks. Among the key producers for him, especially today, was a spinbait (a lipless jerkbait that has a small prop on both the nose and tail).
“I throw everything at them and when you find a spot where they’re at and you see one follow your bait or you catch one, you have to throw everything in the tackle box there because you never know what they’re going to react to,” he said.
The spinbait produced two keepers for him Saturday and when the conditions Sunday prevented him from effectively fishing bottom baits like a dropshot, he resorted to the spinbait.
“Today with the wind, it was hard to keep the boat positioned so I threw a swimbait for a little bit and they’d just bump it, so I threw (the spybait) out there with treble hooks on it and they got it,” he said. “I had to mix up every day and change up depth zones.”
His first fish today was a 4-pounder and shortly thereafter, he caught a 6-05, which wound up winning big-bass honors for the event (he weighed in two 6-pounders this week). From there, his confidence grew and he continued to catch better quality fish than his competitors.
“You can never script it,” he said. “I’ve had a couple events this year where I was close. You put yourself in position to win and it’s hard to do against this group. It’s hard to get one of these blue trophies. I gave a couple away this year and let it slip away and it really bothers you. Believe me, I do not ever take this for granted. You never know, especially as long as I’ve fished, when it’s going to be your last one or when your next one might possibly come.”
2nd: Big Boost For Mosley
> Day 4: 5, 20-02 (20, 82-03)
For having never before been to the St. Lawrence River, Mosley said his runner-up finish felt very much like a victory. His previous best Elite Series finish was a 39th this year at Lake Okeechobee.
“It feels pretty awesome,” said the Mississippi native. “I was worried going to the St. Lawrence. I typically don’t do well my first time at a place. I just wanted to survive so it feels pretty good. I had no idea everybody would struggle today.”
Except one guy – VanDam. When Mosley pulled into the check-in area before the rest of the finalists, he saw VanDam was already at the ramp.
“I knew before everybody he’d won because he was checked in early,” Mosley said.
He had relied on a Ned rig the first three days, but the conditions today forced him to switch to a dropshot with a NetBait Contour Worm in the 15- to 20-foot depth zone that was money for him all week.
“I caught a couple 14- to 15-inchers right away, then caught my best fish around 8:30 a.m.,” he said. “When I finished my limit, I had maybe 13 pounds.”
He then stopped on a shoal he’d never fished before since it fit the depth criteria he was looking for. He caught back-to-back 4-pounders and added another 4-pounder on the same spot later in the day.
Brock Mosley had easily the best tournament of his young Elite Series career this week.
Confidence-wise, Mosley said this finish is a big boost for him.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s hard to not get down. Last year, I got down on myself. It was a mental game. This year, my mindset is whatever happens happens. I’ve had some decent finishes, but I’ve also some bad ones.”
3rd: Palaniuk Pleased With Rally
> Day 4: 5, 18-13 (20, 82-00)
For someone who found himself nearly 8 1/2 pounds behind the leader on day 1, Palaniuk had nothing to gripe about leaving Waddington with a 3rd-place finish to his credit.
“I’m really happy,” he said. “It’s one of the few times I’ll be happy with a 3rd-place finish. I felt like it was a win after the hole I dug myself on day 1. For me to win after day 1 was going to be pretty monumental considering the deficit and the guys I had to catch.”
It’s his fifth straight top-20 finish and has catapulted him into the AOY points lead. Today, he made the same run he’d been making since day 2 toward Lake Ontario.
“I felt my only shot to win was doing that,” he said. “With the wind direction change I knew it was going to be really tough and the weights showed that other than for Kevin.”
He again targeted specific pieces of structure and bottom transitions with a dropshot, using a Zoom Z-Drop.
4th: Wind Punished Ehrler Today
> Day 4: 5, 17-13 (20, 80-14)
Ehrler was enthused about what he saw Saturday in the areas he was fishing. It gave him hope that he’d be able to erase the 3-plus pound deficit he faced come Sunday.
The windy conditions hampered his ability to capitalize on those opportunities today.
“It was good to be inside the top 12, but I lost a lot of fish Saturday and today,” he said. “I had a chance at a big stringer Saturday and probably 20 to 21 pounds today. I’m not saying I could’ve won, but that’s what happened. I can’t complain with 4th.”
He was culling by 7:45 this morning, then lost a couple big ones. Then the effects of the wind started to set in.
“I was fishing areas that were 5 feet deep and there were 3-footers rolling across it and they wouldn’t bite,” he said. “I fished all exposed areas that were shallow. When the wind came up it trashed everything I had. I was actually fortunate to catch decent ones early enough to keep me in the top 5.”
Throughout the tournament, he relied on a Lucky Craft Pointer 78 and also mixed in a Lucky Craft Screw Pointer spinbait and a dropshot rigged with a Gary Yamamoto Shad-Shape Worm. He also weighed in one fish each day on a marabou jig that FLW Tour angler Jeff Gustafson tied for him.
Brandon Palaniuk overcame a miserable first day to finish 3rd and take over the lead in the AOY chase.
5th: Lost Fish Cost JVD
> Day 4: 5, 16-14 (20, 80-14)
Aggressive, powerful fish and some bad luck conspired to knock Jonathon VanDam down the standings three spots today. Still, he’s happy with the outcome because of the shot of momentum it gives him heading into the final two regular-season events.
“I had the bites to do well,” he said. “I think I would’ve maintained 2nd. It was just the way they hit. There was nothing I could do on any of them. One was on a spinnerbait, two were on a dropshot and another hung me in some reeds. When you have 8-pound line around reeds and 4- to 5-pound smallmouth, the odds aren’t in your favor.
“Overall, for me it was a disappointing day, but a great tournament. If I couldn’t have won, I wanted Kevin or Casey (Ashley) to win. The number one goal is to win the tournament, but in the grand scheme of things and based on where I was in points, this brought me back up. If I have a couple more decent tournaments, I’ll be close to the Classic cut.”
He weighed in two swimbait fish and three caught on a dropshot today and said it was a struggle battling the conditions.
“On a lot of big river systems, including the Detroit River, whenever it blows against the current it changes how the fish position. It backs the current up and you can’t fish it effectively. Your baits are moving faster than the boat and it’s hard to get a natural presentation.”
He said there’s nothing he’d do differently if he had to fish the tournament over again.
“Maybe find a couple more places and plan for the conditions we had today,” he said. “I was on the fish to be able to win the tournament. I didn’t get the bites to do it. The areas I fished were capable. It just didn’t work out. I lost some fish and there’s nothing I could do differently. They just came off.”
> Day 4 stats – 12 anglers, 12 limits.
> Alton Jones Sr., the runner-up at the St. Lawrence in 2015, finished 11th this week and weighed in all largemouth today.
> VanDam’s 90-03 total ranks behind only Kota Kiriyama’s 93-06 winning total at Lake Erie/Upper Niagara River in August 2008 as the top weights in Elite Series events where smallmouth has been the dominant species.
1. Kevin VanDam -- Kalamazoo, MI -- 20, 90-03 -- 110 -- $102,000
Day 1: 5, 24-05 -- Day 2: 5, 19-08 -- Day 3: 5, 22-10 -- Day 4: 5, 23-12
2. Brock Mosley -- Collinsville, MS -- 20, 82-03 -- 109 -- $25,000
Day 1: 5, 20-08 -- Day 2: 5, 21-08 -- Day 3: 5, 20-01 -- Day 4: 5, 20-02
3. Brandon Palaniuk -- Hayden, ID -- 20, 82-00 -- 108 -- $20,000
Day 1: 5, 15-15 -- Day 2: 5, 25-00 -- Day 3: 5, 22-04 -- Day 4: 5, 18-13
4. Brent Ehrler -- Redlands, CA -- 20, 80-14 -- 107 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 22-09 -- Day 2: 5, 19-00 -- Day 3: 5, 21-08 -- Day 4: 5, 17-13
5. Jonathon VanDam -- Kalamazoo, MI -- 20, 80-14 -- 106 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 20-09 -- Day 2: 5, 21-15 -- Day 3: 5, 21-08 -- Day 4: 5, 16-14
6. James Elam -- Tulsa, OK -- 20, 78-14 -- 105 -- $13,500
Day 1: 5, 21-12 -- Day 2: 5, 18-01 -- Day 3: 5, 20-11 -- Day 4:5, 18-06
7. Jamie Hartman -- Newport, NY -- 20, 78-12 -- 104 -- $13,000
Day 1: 5, 19-00 -- Day 2: 5, 17-13 -- Day 3: 5, 23-06 -- Day 4:5, 18-09
8. Casey Ashley -- Donalds, SC -- 20, 77-13 -- 103 -- $12,500
Day 1: 5, 21-14 -- Day 2: 5, 20-14 -- Day 3: 5, 19-05 -- Day 4: 5, 15-12
9. Brandon Coulter -- Knoxville, TN -- 20, 77-09 -- 102 -- $12,000
Day 1: 5, 19-10 -- Day 2: 5, 22-08 -- Day 3: 5, 18-10 -- Day 4: 5, 16-13
10. Gerald Swindle -- Guntersville, AL -- 20, 76-08 -- 101 -- $11,500
Day 1: 5, 18-12 -- Day 2: 5, 19-08 -- Day 3: 5, 23-06 -- Day 4: 5, 14-14
11. Alton Jones -- Lorena, TX -- 20, 75-13 -- 100 -- $11,000
Day 1: 5, 20-06 -- Day 2: 5, 18-00 -- Day 3: 5, 21-09 -- Day 4: 5, 15-14
12. Bernie Schultz -- Gainesville, FL -- 20, 70-09 -- 99 -- $10,500
Day 1: 5, 21-12 -- Day 2: 5, 19-12 -- Day 3: 5, 19-09 -- Day 4: 5, 9-08